It’s easy to conclude that Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. is simply the latest limited-event series to mine televised serial drama out of a sensational, true-crime tragedy. In this case, it’s the still-unsolved murders of rappers Tupac “2Pac” Shakur and Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace (also known as Biggie Smalls). After all, this show is both executive-produced and mostly directed by Anthony Hemingway, who also shot several of the best episodes of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, the show that started this craze.
However, it seems that Hemingway is biting less from Simpson and making his own version of another Ryan Murphy show: Feud. Hey, next to Bette and Joan, Tupac and Biggie is one of the most storied rivalries in popular culture. And it looks like Hemingway, along with writer Kyle Long (Suits), got a jump on telling this story before his former boss could maybe get around to it. Unsolved takes it back to before its subjects got sucked up into the fame game and came to be seen as bitter enemies and each other’s consistent targets. Hell, the pilot episode ends with them playing around with unloaded machine guns during a cookout, an incident that actually happened when the pair (Wavyy Jonez plays Biggie and Marcc Rose plays Tupac) were just young MCs who respected each other and hit each other up for advice.
Besides telling the story of two rappers who eventually became casualties in the Nineties’ ridiculous East Coast/West Coast rap beef, Unsolved is also a double-stacked, occasionally trite police procedural. Along with taking us to Biggie and Tupac’s early-Nineties timeline, we also go to 1997, when dedicated LAPD detective Russell Poole (Jimmi Simpson, looking like a younger, thinner William Forsythe) is investigating the Biggie murder. Then, it jumps to nearly a decade later, to when backward-baseball-cap-wearing detective Greg Kading (Josh Duhamel) assembles a task force in solving the same exact murder. (The show is based mostly on Kading’s 2011 book Murder Rap: The Untold Story of the Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur Murder Investigations.)
Some critics have already complained that Unsolved is blatantly ripping off other prestige, procedural shows. The Poole timeline may suggest the first season of True Detective, with Simpson’s fidgety-yet-diligent Poole (who is reminiscent of Matthew McConaughey’s doom-and-gloom dick Rust Cohle) trying to weave a case where Suge Knight, gang members, and corrupt LAPD cops who worked for Knight are all likely suspects. And the Kading timeline does look a lot like The Wire. Hell, even Bunk himself, Wendell Pierce, shows up as a stubborn, bolo tie–wearing task-force member. But for me the show echoes what David Fincher did with his underrated film Zodiac. It shows how a baffling, true-crime case can turn dedicated lawmen like Poole (who — spoiler alert! — passed away in 2015) and Kading into obsessed maniacs.
If you lived through that time (or covered the rap-music scene, like I did) or have even seen the documentaries and biopics that have centered on Biggie or Tupac, Unsolved doesn’t give you any new leads. The show is really a refresher course of where we are in cracking Biggie and Tupac’s murders, which is nowhere. Hell, at the end of every episode, the show reminds the audience that neither case has been solved. Hemingway and Long consistently let you know that Unsolved will not give you closure.
Unsolved does subtly show us how the life and times of Biggie and Tupac have seeped into our public consciousness over the years. Their untimely deaths have turned them into unexpected martyrs whose ghetto gospel many now revere as canon. In the pilot episode, Kading’s pistol-packing girl (Laurie Fortier) sings the chorus from Biggie’s “Hypnotize” to the cop, while his own son (Cooper Roth) comes up with a theory about what the hell happened in another episode. Even Kading’s right-hand man (Bokeem Woodbine) is a diehard Biggie fan who wants to see this case put to rest. Back in the day, this was a case of — as Chris Rock infamously said in his 1999 Bigger and Blacker HBO special — two N-words who got shot. But time has passed, and the fact that the murders of two talented rap icons — two of the biggest crimes of the past century — have yet to be solved is currently the biggest crime of our century.
Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. airs Tuesdays on the USA Network.
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